Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will seek to shore up right-wing support Wednesday morning, with the start of a high-stakes legal hearing and the possible end of coalition negotiations suspended over his political future like twin swords of Damocles.
A long-awaited pre-indictment hearing with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit comes as coalition negotiations have foundered, leading to widespread speculation that the longtime Likud leader may end his bid to form a new government early, which may eventually mean an unprecedented third round of elections.
At the same time as his 10-man legal team was to begin presenting its defense to Mandelblit and other justice officials, Netanyahu was set to meet Wednesday morning with the heads of the Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yamina parties at his office in Jerusalem. The parties are expected to discuss the deadlock in coalition talks.
The three parties signed a pact with Likud shortly after the September 17 election to negotiate as a single right-wing religious bloc.
The 55 Knesset members from the four parties are widely believed to support legislation that would give Netanyahu and other lawmakers in legal jeopardy immunity from prosecution, but fall six seats short of a majority necessary to push such a law through. Efforts to bring in other lawmakers have faltered.
Netanyahu had been scheduled to meet with Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz Wednesday evening, but the centrist party canceled the summit late Tuesday, saying there were no signs that the premier was truly interested in reaching a power-sharing compromise. Also canceled was a lower-level meeting between the parties’ negotiating teams scheduled for Wednesday morning.
The announcement led to both parties accusing each other of intransigence and claiming that the other side was pushing the country toward a third election. And it could pave the way to Netanyahu ending his coalition-building efforts and returning the mandate to do so to Israel’s president.
Blue and White officials said Likud was not negotiating in good faith, and was only seeking to blame them for the failure to form a government. “We won’t serve as the backdrop for the Likud’s election games,” Blue and White said.
The party’s officials said talks could proceed if Likud came to the negotiation table without preconditions and without demanding that the rest of the right-religious bloc be automatically included in negotiations.
Likud responded that it was “stunned” by Blue and White’s decision to “torpedo” the negotiations. It said Gantz’s party appeared to have decided to “go to elections” and blamed the party’s No. 2, Yair Lapid, claiming that the main obstacle to a unity agreement was Lapid’s resistance to a rotation agreement between Gantz and Netanyahu.
Blue and White’s leadership has consistently said it would not agree to serve in a coalition under Netanyahu’s leadership so long as he is suspected of criminal wrongdoing.
In February, Mandelblit announced that Netanyahu was facing possible charges of fraud and breach of trust in three cases, and a possible charge of bribery in one of them, pending a hearing. He has declaimed his innocence and described his legal woes as a witch hunt.
Related: The allegations against Netanyahu
The hearing, which has been delayed by political machinations as Israel has gone through two rounds of elections, was stretched this week from its original planned two days on October 2-3 to a total expected four days over the coming week, with proceedings coming to an end by October 8, which marks the start of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.
Netanyahu’s defense team will arrive at Justice Ministry offices at 10 a.m. Wednesday morning for the first session of the premier’s pre-indictment hearing process.
Case 4000 is first in line for the hearing, and will be discussed on Wednesday and Thursday. Considered the most serious case, Netanyahu is facing accusations that he tried to give regulatory favors to Bezeq head Shaul Elovitch in exchange for favorable media coverage in the Walla news website, which Bezeq controls.
The two other cases will be discussed on Sunday and Monday.
In Case 1000, Netanyahu is alleged to have received tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts from Arnon Milchan, an Israeli Hollywood producer, and James Packer, an Australian casino mogul. Mandelblit said he intends to charge Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust.
In Case 2000, Netanyahu is accused of agreeing with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes to weaken a rival daily in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.
Netanyahu denies all the allegations against him and claims they constitute a witch hunt by his political opposition, media, police and state prosecutors to remove him from office, which he has held for a total of over 13 years, the longest in the state’s history.
On Tuesday night around 300 Netanyahu supporters demonstrated outside Mandelblit’s home in Petah Tikva.
Activists chanted slogans in support of the prime minister and claimed the cases against him were a plot by justice officials and the media — a line that has been pushed by the prime minister himself.
“They are going to take down the best prime minister we ever had,” protester Noam Fathi told the Walla news site.
Despite his legal woes, Netanyahu was charged by President Reuven Rivlin last week with trying to form a government based on the strength of his pact with right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties to negotiate as a bloc of 55 MKs, and given 28 days to do so.
Gantz heads a bloc of 54 MKs from the center, left and Arab parties, but the 10 Arab MKs in that group would not join a Gantz-led coalition. Neither candidate has a clear path to a 61-strong Knesset majority.
Rivlin had suggested a unity government in which power would be equally divided and Netanyahu and Gantz would each serve two years as prime minister. Rivlin implied, but did not specify, that Netanyahu would take an open-ended leave of absence if or when he is indicted in one or more of the probes in which he faces charges. Under the arrangement set out by Rivlin, Gantz, as “interim prime minister” in such a scenario, would enjoy all prime ministerial authority.
But the two parties have been unable to agree on who would be prime minister first under such an arrangement.
If nothing changes in the party’s positions, Netanyahu is now expected to tell Rivlin that he is unable to form a majority government, and may due so as early as Wednesday. This will likely lead to Gantz being given a chance to form a coalition.
Prosecution officials told Channel 12 news on Tuesday they hoped to reach a final decision on whether to indict the premier by the end of the year.